Silence, from the Outpost
Having set myself the goal of posting a piece of writing here once a month, I glanced at the calendar a couple of days ago with a bit of trepidation. Deadline looming, and no strong inspiration for new writing. Surprising, given that the past month has been chock-full of long thoughts, good conversations, and distant new horizons. From April 8 – 24 we flew far from home, taking in the view from our padded chairs in the stratospheric 500-knot buses that are such a wonder to us low-level bush-pilots. Across to Scandinavia and back to North America, and then south, briefly, to the even more foreign and exotic world of south California, there to glean precious hours with a friend who is now in his early 90’s. And finally home, to a cool and icy late winter here. Back to work, such as it is, and yesterday more hours of thoughts on a 240-mile solo flight in the little Husky on skis, up to the Arctic coast at the behest of the territorial wildlife department. There I walked alone through a valley of sculpted snow and gravel hills to retrieve a dead caribou’s bloodied radio-collar, and lifted off for home.
Sensing my self-imposed deadline, I thought of a passage from the final chapter in North of Reliance. I will post that brief chapter here in its entirety, below, as a stop-gap against silence. Thinking about my sudden lack of words, I called up lines from a poem by Wendell Berry, lines which I could not recite precisely. Now I have fetched his collection, Clearing, from the little bookshelf in our sauna’s outer room, so that I can share them here:
“What is this silence coming over me?
I am curious and afraid
one day my poems may pass
through my mind unwritten,
like the freshenings of a stream
in the hills, holding the light
only while they pass, shaping
only what they pass through,
source and destination
the same. I am afraid,
some days, that only vanity
keeps me at my words.”
- From “Work Song” by Wendell Berry, in the collection Clearing. pub. 1974.
I often think of our place here as an outpost. Outpost is one of those words I have always liked. It has a rough-hewn crispness to it. Its dictionary definition, though, is prosaic and military: “1. A detachment of troops stationed at a distance from a main unit of forces. 2. The station occupied by such troops.”
In hours of remorse and bewilderment I can apply that military meaning to our efforts here. I can see myself a soldier, drafted by birth into a heartless and destructive army. Our homestead is a small and distant detachment of an invading, well-disciplined force.
Our marching orders are clear: More is better. Technology will prevail. Faster. Larger. Easier. More. Now. Hills and waterfalls are “scenic attractions” or “potential hydroelectric sites.” The migrations of caribou are “eco-tourism resources.” The entire world is reduced to crisp, logical dollars and stark senseless cents.
Our lives at the outpost are full of hypocrisy, cluttered with contradiction, dripping with embellished notions of a romantic past that, if it ever existed, is gone. In a land that George Back claimed could starve a wolf, and can still do so, we are fantastically, extravagantly at ease. Our pantry is stocked with everything from soy sauce to canned peaches; we have communication with the world outside at the flip of a switch. Incoming airplanes bring our mail, friends arrive with fresh fruit from California, wines bottled in France, ground beef from the ranches near Calgary. Here on the rough-hewn romantic frontier, our most consistently pressing concern, our fundamental need, is not food or shelter or water, not tea or tobacco or fur, but money—just cold hard cash, please. The bottom line that rules so many lives makes its power felt even here.
We are an outpost on a distant flank of the main front, a station relying on support from outside, eager for our next resupply, contact with headquarters, news of the campaign.
But out on the flank, alone, we cannot help but glimpse the other side. It is, in the prevalent view, a hostile and alien force. Wildness. The bush. Unorganized, not yet subdued, unpredictable, completely apathetic and aloof to the campaign being waged against it, it sustains itself. It is powerful, patient, and ingenious; cold, vast, and scraped to bedrock, but covered completely by a thin layer of tough, enduring life.
At an outpost the morale of the soldiers can slip. The dogma of the high command and the easy assumptions of the party line can begin to appear ludicrous and false. News from outside may be delayed, solar storms can knock out the radio, and for months each autumn no reinforcements may arrive. Steadily, quietly, the land takes its opportunity: spruce, swan, wolverine, bear, trout, alder, lichen, sky and wind whisper subversively to the sentries who pace the perimeters. Feeling uneasy, beginning to wonder, we turn up the music, tune in the radio, type a few letters . . .
Years pass. Why am I stationed here? When will I be transferred? What does our presence stand for, and what do we stand against? Loyalty falters. Doubts creep in. Where is that fine line I came to tread, deftly balanced at the interface of two worlds?
Clear answers elude me. The wilderness asserts its power, presses its advantage. On some quiet days, alone here or with Kristen, I feel a timeless peace, a meditative serenity, spreading into my speech and movements and outlook. I dispel it and welcome it by turns. I become thoughtful, and for days at a time confused.
I leave the cabin late on a spring night and walk to the mouth of the Hoarfrost. I lie back on a smooth spur of bedrock, look up at the stars through a faint green aurora, and listen to the rush of meltwater fresh from the thawing tundra. Slowly, steadily, what began as an outpost becomes a home.
— final chapter of North of Reliance, original edition 1994; second edition published 2016 by Raven Productions, Ely Minnesota U.S.A.